About eighteen months ago, I penned a piece on a then fledgling organization called Teach for Canada which, at the time, was just starting to make in-roads into the education system here in Canada. Founded by non-educators like Adam Goldenberg, a former speech writer for Michael Ignatieff and Yale law graduate, and Kyle Hill, a Rhodes scholar and business consultant, Teach for Canada had a simple mandate. They were going to “address educational inequality” in Canada’s First Nations communities by taking recently graduated University students, regardless of their course of study, training them for a summer, and then plopping them down into First Nations communities to teach.
Teach for Canada immediately garnered criticism from a number of education activists and organizations. Well known Alberta teacher and educational blogger, Joe Bower, wrote about his concerns as early as 2013, citing the similarities between Teach for Canada and Teach for America, a widely criticized organization that has been using this exact method to try to improve education in US schools, with questionable results. Here in Nova Scotia, educational activist and teacher Ben Sichel also questioned the similarities between the two groups, going so far as to contact the founders directly with some fairly pointed questions. Possibly the most vocal critic of the TFC movement has been well know Twitter presence and independent researcher Tobey Steeves. Steeves, a teacher from British Columbia, has done nothing short of waging an all out social media war on TFC. He has also written a number of peer reviewed and quite persuasive articles pointing out why we should be concerned. The Canadian Teacher’s Federation has put together a briefing document that outlines their issues with TFC, and the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation has gone so far as to come out and officially declare in resolution that they oppose the efforts of the group.
It was not just the similarities between TFC and Teach for America that raised all this ruckus. For many, the idea of planting under qualified university grads into some of the most challenging schools in the country and expecting them to teach was a ridiculous, if not downright damaging, notion. For some, there were grave concerns expressed about the connection between Teach for Canada and the energy sector. One of the main concerns that ran through the entire body of criticism was the connection between TFC and their corporate world supporters, some of whom are tied to efforts to privatize the education system in the United States.
Yet, despite all this criticism Teach for Canada has arrived on our shores, and have just completed training their first cohort of teachers . These “graduates” from the summer enrichment program will soon be taking their place at the front of the class in a number of First Nations Communities across Northern Ontario.
A quick look at the Teach for Canada website gives an indication as to how they have been successful. In the face of criticism, they have changed their program, and now only work with B.Ed graduates. They have amassed a respectable “Circle of advisors”, including a number of academics and a smattering of First Nations representatives. They have also garnered support from at least one national educational organization, The Canadian Educators Association, and both Memorial University in Newfoundland and Lakehead University in Ontario. Finally they have put together a very slick recruiting campaign, already airing the all call for the 2016 – 2017 school year. According to their website, they are looking for “adventurous, community-focused, optimistic, resilient and self-reflective teachers who demonstrate a genuine love of children.”
Kind of makes you want to sign up, doesn’t it?
Well, before declaring Teach for Canada a success story, there are still a number of issues of concern for me as an observer.
The first issue centers around the organization’s continued coziness with the resource based business sector. One of their executive directors, Mark Podlasky, is a CEO of a company called North Pacific Energy, which supplies Canadian wood biomass to the power sector in Korea and Japan. Having an energy sector CEO directly connected with the educating of children raises a number of alarm bells in my mind.
Then there is the issue of privatization. Teach for Canada has the financial support of a number of private interests (again, alarm bells) but also of the Ontario Government, to the tune of a $70,000.00 grant. This to my mind, is a very dangerous slope. If the government feels there is a need to improve First Nations Education in Northern Communities, (which there is) then it the government should be running programs, not hiring outside contractors. Organizations like Teach for Canada, if allowed to continue operation, could easily begin to tap into the desperation felt by many governments and communities when it comes to challenging areas of education. Contracting out teacher education for marginalized populations to the private sector for would be easier, and undoubtedly cheaper for governments than attacking the issues head on.
But, for my money, it is in the overall paternalistic approach that TFC is taking with the issue where the true danger lies.
I speak with some authority on the subject. As a young teacher, I went North to teach. An English teacher by trade, I recognized that there was a whole new voice of activism rising out of the Canadian landscape. The First Nations people were experiencing nothing short of a renaissance, and I wanted to dedicate my passion and energy to helping this noble group heal from the scars of imperialism and cultural genocide. In short, I could have been a poster child for TFC.
What I didn’t recognize, of course, was my own cultural baggage. Yes I had taken courses, yes I read books. Yes I was passionate, and yes, I tried to learn the language. Yes, I incorporated traditional activities into my classroom, and yes I worked closely with the local community to try to understand my students and their lives. I did home visits, went to sweats, learned to filet jackfish and tan deer hide. And, in my experience, so did the majority of other Non-First Nations teachers with whom I worked, many just as young and as idealistic as I was. But I was operating on what was at best a naive, and at worst, a colonialistic premise.
The First Nations people of this country needed help, and I, as a well-educated white kid, knew best how to help them.
TFC’s call for “adventurous” teachers with a “genuine love of children” smacks of a romanticism that is beyond dangerous. The image of “Teacher as saviour” may play well in recruitment drives, but it is not only unrealistic, it is culturally arrogant. If I am going into a community to “save” it, then my inherent judgement of that community is already negative. I am saving the community because it needs saving. It is broken, and I, as a teacher, can fix it.
And that ideology carries with it a whole backpack full of cultural superiority.
At the end of the day, history will judge the success of Teach for Canada. And I do wish their graduates well as they begin their teaching careers. I just hope that a glitzy campaign and romantic ideologies have not mislead these graduates and the First Nations communities they are about to serve.
The reality faced by many First Nations people in this country is a National shame. Efforts to improve that reality should be a National priority.
Passing the buck on First Nations education to an upstart non-profit with ties to privatization doesn’t suggest priority to me.
Author’s note: The Canadian Teacher’s Federation came out in August with more concerns about Teach for Canada. The news story can be found here.